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Wednesday, January 28, 1998 Published at 21:59 GMT

World: Analysis

Has justice been done?

In India, 26 people have been sentenced to death for conspiring to murder the country's former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. Their sentence brings to an end a seven-year investigation into Mr Gandhi's murder. He was blown up in May 1991 by a woman suicide bomber, who also died in the explosion. But although the case has been one of the largest murder trials in India, the prime culprits for Mr Gandhi's murder are either still on the run or have committed suicide during the proceedings. Alastair Lawson of the BBC's South Asia Regional Unit reports.

The murder of Rajiv Gandhi by a suicide bomber stunned India. Such was the public outcry after the attack that the police launched a massive manhunt to find those responsible. The finger of suspicion immediately fell on Tamil Tiger rebels of Sri Lanka, who were widely believed to be keen to avenge Mr Gandhi's decision to send Indian peace-keeping troops to the island in 1987. From the outset, the four-year trial of the 26 accused was controversial.

Only a peripheral role

The case was conducted in camera without a jury, and 12 of those accused of playing a role in the murder committed suicide during the course of the proceedings. Furthermore, the man who most commentators believe ordered the attack, the Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, has never been caught.

Another unusual aspect to the case is the fact that only two defendants were actually charged with murder. The rest were accused of sheltering criminals or conspiracy to murder. Critics of the proceedings have argued that those in the dock played only a peripheral role in the slaying of Mr Gandhi. Only 13 of the 26 accused were Sri Lankans: the rest were all alleged to be Indian supporters of the Tamil Tigers.

In India the use of the death sentence is rare, although one of the assassins of Mr Gandhi's mother, Indira, was hanged, as was the killer of India's independence leader, Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi name dominates elections

The end of the trial comes at a difficult time for Mr Gandhi's Congress Party, which is widely thought to be incapable of winning an overall majority in the forthcoming general elections. Most commentators believe the conviction of Mr Gandhi's killers will attract some sympathy for his widow, Sonia, who is currently campaigning on behalf of the party. But it's unlikely to have a profound impact on the course of the election.

The election itself has been brought about because of the circumstances surrounding Mr Gandhi's murder. In November a government report into security lapses surrounding his death compiled by the Jain Commission was leaked to the press. It said that a regional party from Tamil Nadu had links with the Tamil Tigers at the time of the assassination.

That revelation prompted Congress to withdraw support from the United Front government, which could not continue in power without its backing. Seven years after his death, the name of Rajiv Gandhi still dominates the headlines in India.

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